When to Roll the Bones

One of the most important questions in any RPG is when you should engage the system. The precise form this takes varies from game to game, but it tends to sound like “When should and shouldn’t I roll for things?”. On the surface, this is an obvious and easily addressed concern . You don’t want players to have to roll for everything they do, like eating lunch or walking across the room, so you only want them to roll for the good stuff. And that’s where it gets a little fuzzy.

What the good stuff is tends to be a little bit handwaved in rules texts because it tends to fall under the pornography rule – people know it when they see it. And this kind of works – most GMs have a sense of when they should and shouldn’t call for a roll based on what’s fun for them – but it is not often examined, and that can be a problem when the dice and the sentiment at the table start to diverge.

The rub is that there are at least three very different criteria for when you should engage the system, and while any game may use these in any combination, sequentially or simultaneously, being aware of these criteria can be very useful to a GM trying to figure out why a scene feels flat.

The first reason you might bust out the dice is because what the character is going to do is challenging. Because the task is hard, the dice are used to represent the chance for failure. This sort of roll can be a good way to reinforce the reality of the world because the logic of it is obvious – hard things are harder to do. It drives play by inspiring creativity from players, who will use these challenges as opportunities to use their problem solving skills to make the task easier or otherwise optimize their chances.

The second reason you might roll is because the event is exciting, which usually means that there’s some risk involved in failure. This is pretty logical because excitement and risk tend to be tied to moments of high investment in what’s going on in the game, and this criteria reinforces the excitement of play. It drives play by driving towards these moments of excitement, and also by hitting on our gambling bug by offering a chance at risk/reward.

The last reason you might call for a roll is because it’s dramatic. This can be fuzzy because this often allows a broad disconnect between the apparent action and what’s being rolled for, so let me try to pin it down a little. A dramatic event is one which will ultimately make an important decision about the game. The drama might be intensely personal (does this character love my character or not?) or it may shape the game (does the kingdom fall?) but the game is changed in some way by the outcome of this roll. This is often closely tied to the idea of “stakes” – things that explicitly ride on the outcome of a roll or scene – and can produce some weird outcome when the stakes are explicit and separate from play. It’s an idea out of fiction where a scene may not be about what it’s about. As an example, the scene might involve two people fighting, but the goal of one of the characters is actually to impress one of the ladies watching – is this fencing or seduction?[1] Anyway, for simplicity we’ll say a dramatic roll is one that will make an important change in the game, depending on its outcome.

For purposes of illustration, let’s turn to a classic situation: A player comes to a hole in the ground that he must cross. Should he roll?

  • If the criteria is challenge, then they GM considers how wide the hole is and how well the character can jump. If it’s something the character has a high chance of success at, he may forgo the roll, but if it’s uncertain, then it merits the use of dice.
  • If the criteria is excitement, the GM considers what makes this jump exciting . Technically there’s some risk/reward – after all the player could fall and hurt himself – but that’s pretty dull. The GM would probably forgo the roll unless some other factor (like “The character is being pursued”) that ups the tension and allows for a better risk/reward.
  • If the criteria is drama, then the GM considers why this jump matters, and to be honest, it’s hard to come up with an example that’s not entirely contrived, but not impossible. Lois McMaster Bujold managed to do it in the first few pages of The Warrior’s Apprentice, and most examples I could think of would be riffs on that.

So, that’s all simple enough so far, and could be boiled down to “Be aware of what criteria you’re using when you call for a roll” but, of course, there’s a catch.

These criteria are far from exclusive – a task can be hard, exciting and important all at the same time. Or it might be hard and important, exciting and important or hard and exciting. And that’s where this gets interesting because this can open a window on how you plan for moments of system engagement. When you put an obstacle in your player’s path, you can ask yourself how many of the criteria it meets.

Now, I’m not saying every challenge should meet all three criteria. If everything is hard, exciting and dramatic, then that’s really saying the game should be turned to 11 at all times. If that’s what you want, then great, go for it, but odds are good you and your group are more comfortable with a particular sort of distribution. Think about the difference between a game that is mostly hard, some excitement and a little dramatic and one which is mostly exciting, with occasional hard and dramatic elements. Both of those are good, playable games, but they’re very different in tone and flavor.

If you can figure out the proportion your table likes, then you have a super-useful piece of information for making future games more engaging.

1 – One modified by the other at my table, but this idea messes with some people because the two skills aren’t physically connected.

19 thoughts on “When to Roll the Bones

  1. Chuck

    Here’s what I’d be interested in seeing:

    Put that into the rules directly.

    Then, give the player the choice on how to spin an action, with different mechanical costs and benefits for each.

    — c.

  2. Cam_Banks

    Here’s something else to consider. The “what does failure mean?” thing that games are all over these days (including ours – Clark wrote an awesome section in the Big Damn Heroes Handbook for the Serenity RPG on failure being interesting) is also going to be heavily influenced by what the roll is about, too.

    Also, this flies in the face of 4E’s scaled difficulty, too, when it isn’t about Dramatic or Exciting. Paragon Fighter and Heroic Fighter are trying to smash down a door. In 4E, that door gets scaled to meet the need of the scene, which is fine for Dramatic or Exciting but it’s weird for Challenging. Why is Paragon Fighter having as much trouble as Heroic Fighter? Because the game has that “DC +X” where X is some tier/level based factor.

    We had a complaint about Serenity (and Cortex in general) once that amounted to, it’s too easy for my skilled pilot to crash his ship and botch, when it’s a clear sky and no weather and he’s got all the time in the world to do it. We had to ask, why the hell was he rolling? But there was a corollary to that which was, unless the Difficulty is high, why would I bother rolling anyway? And that means, why do we have an Easy Difficulty?

  3. Helmsman

    To extend Cam’s question, I’ve wondered what is the result of success and/or failure. In your drama scenario, what is the result of a dramatic roll? How does the result inspire emotion? If it sways opinions of the characters watching, or acts upon the inner turmoil of the character attempting the action, then how do the mechanics show this?

  4. Rob Donoghue

    @cam I’m all about the power of failure, but that’s a big enough topic for its own post. However, your comment reminds me of another common use. A lot of times the GM will call for a skill roll just to “test the breeze” on a scene. That is, however this plays out, you and your crew are going to fly form point a to point b, but I might call for a roll to see whether I describe it a smooth sailing, a rough ride with mechanical difficulties or whatever.

    For all that there’s not much intensity to it, I can’t really fault this approach – as a GM I like having guideposts, and using skill rolls in this way gives me a way to give characters a nod in the areas in which they excel (tip of the hat back to competence play there).

    The problem is that these rolls really are different than others – they’re not pass/fail, they’re “how do you pass” rolls. This is easy to address on a practical level by not setting a target number, but that gets a bit rough when the system has fixed TNs – players in Coretex or nWoD know they’ve failed by the system’s metrics – so it depends on a more explicit understanding between the players and the GM that this is a different _kind of roll_ than they might encounter in a scene.

    On the broader topic, there is some natural fuzz regarding when to roll. To use this post, if I am calling for rolls because they are dramatic or exciting, then I’m going to run into problems if the system makes them hard. The pilot in question is a great example of this.

    So yes, absolutely this requires a shared understanding of what failure means, but the specific that need to get wrestled to the ground vary a lot of system to system, and can get muddied further when the color is at a disconnect with the math. As you note with 4e, the math is generally built on a coin toss, and that can be hard to sell when the fiction is telling you that you’re getting more awesome.

    -Rob D.

  5. Rob Donoghue

    @helmsman There are a lot of different answers to that, and I’m agnostic regarding which to go with. For example:

    If the fate of an NPC is in the balance, that might have mechanical weight (as bond or aspects or whatever on the character’s sheets), it might have setting weight (the loss of the NPC will impact the setting in some noteworthy way, like make someone else king) or it might have personal weight (the GM knows the players like this NPC, and the threat to him is purely emotional). It also might have some combination of these weights, or have other weights.

    All of which is to say, I think you _can_ mechanize dramatic impact, but there’s no obligation to do so.

    -Rob D.

  6. Cam_Banks

    I have always liked that Fudge (and thus, FATE) allows for a descriptive result after the roll. Thus, I get a Superb result, and we can talk about what that is independent of any set target number. There is a major problem if my Superb result isn’t, somehow, actually Superb in the fiction.

  7. Rob Donoghue

    @cam This is one reason I’m sometimes tempted to break the fudge quality ladder from the fudge results ladder, so I can say “I’m a superb craftsman, but this was a sub-par effort for me” rather than a superb craftsman getting a great result (in both cases, rolling -1). Keeps the emphasis on the Superb.

    -Rob D.

  8. buzz

    I’m not sure how one can talk about the subject when divorced from specific RPG systems.

    D&D 4e DCs scale because D&D 4e is about challenge. You don’t roll for “drama”; you roll to attempt tasks, and those tasks keep pace with the PCs level so that the game is consistently challenging for the players.

    In DitV, you roll when there is conflict, hence the “Roll the dice or say yes” axiom that it spawned.

    In Serenity (and HERO, and GURPS, etc), you roll a) when there’s combat, and 2) when the GM thinks it’d be “dramatic”.

    Ergo, I kind of think the RPG in use will determine the answer to this question, much less whether it even needs to be asked in the first place. If it demands to be asked, but has no clear answer, then the game design effort has failed.

  9. Rob Donoghue

    @buzz The interesting thing is that I would have said 4e was about “excitement”, so it could be we’re just coming at this from very different perspectives.

    Curiously, I think the best answer to this sort of traces back to Judd’s post. Yes, dogs says “Say yes or roll the dice” but that leads to the very reasonable question of “When should I say yes?”

    Move onto the more generic systems (Gurps, HERO, Cortex, nWoD and so on) and “dramatic” is usually poorly defined at best. Sure, combat is always a known quantity, but that’s always been its own little box.

    But is that bad design? I don’t think so. Knowing when to call for a roll is a skill like engaging your players or describing things clearly and well. You can do it well or badly, and the game will lumber along either way.

    To disagree again, I think in many games, the table is a far better determinant of when to roll than the system, at least in the case of most mainstream games. They tend to have a much broader range of correct ways to play them. I’m fully aware that there’s a school of thought that considers that a flaw in their design, but I don’t subscribe to it. 🙂

    -Rob D.

  10. githyankidiaspora

    When should I say, “yes,” is the question I was attempting to address in my post.

    It is interesting to see the different ways people use the dice, though. Using it to see how bumpy a ride is, basically, using a die roll to establish some in-game color would never occur to me.

  11. buzz

    The interesting thing is that I would have said 4e was about “excitement”, so it could be we’re just coming at this from very different perspectives.

    I guess we are, as textually, I don’t think 4e says anything about “excitement”. If anything, 4e requires rolls in some very mundane situations. E.g., it doesn’t matter how boring jumping a chasm might be in the fiction. In D&D, you roll for it no matter what.

    Yes, dogs says “Say yes or roll the dice” but that leads to the very reasonable question of “When should I say yes?”

    Well, in DitV, it’s when there’s a conflict. It’s explicitly stated that, if there is no opposition, there’s no roll. And, mechanically, all rolls in DitV are opposed, so it’s not even possible to roll unopposed.

    Move onto the more generic systems (Gurps, HERO, Cortex, nWoD and so on) and “dramatic” is usually poorly defined at best.

    This is basically my big problem with these systems. I don’t think this question would really even need to be asked if these games weren’t so muddled (and all muddled so similarly).

    Ergo, my initial observation. DitV, BW, FATE, even 4e… all of these games are pretty explicit. Asking the question within their contexts is moot.

  12. Cam_Banks

    I’m still not sure 4E is about “challenge” when that DC is alway going to be scaled to the player character’s level. Again, that same door that’s hard to break down at Heroic tier goes up in level with the character, because the central conceit is that the conflict is thrilling or edge-of-the-seat when it needs to be despite the “realism” in question. In contrast, it would usually make sense for the door that was hard to smash down when you were wet-behind-the-ears to be a piece of cake now that you’re a Paragon superstar.

    As Cortex’s developer, I don’t think it’s locked into the GURPS/HERO/trad mode; for what it’s worth, I think Big Damn Heroes Handbook reflects how far things have progressed in that area, and I continue to work on integrating “story games” ideas into the rules and how they’re demonstrated/applied. After all, that’s much more in line with how I run games, anyway. 🙂

  13. buzz

    In contrast, it would usually make sense for the door that was hard to smash down when you were wet-behind-the-ears to be a piece of cake now that you’re a Paragon superstar.

    That’s in the fiction, though. I’m talking about challenging *for the player*. Regardless of what those DCs represent in the fiction, they need to keep pace so that there’s never a point where the game gets easy. I.e., where players don’t have to juggle resources in order to get that edge to put them over the 50% success threshold.

  14. Cam_Banks

    I think my problem with the 4E scaling thing is that despite all of the amazing things I keep adding to my character sheet, I can theoretically repeat my trip through the same dungeon and never find it any easier. In other words, where do you get the sense that you’re “beyond” such simple things as wooden doors and pit traps? Why bother going up in level at all in that sense?

  15. buzz

    @Cam: The challenges will change. Instead of a locked door, now it’s an iron door sealed by magic, and later it’s a door built from damned souls who need to be redeemed before it will dissipate and let you through so you can fight Orcus. The DCs may scale, but it’s not because the same opponents get tougher each time the PCs meet them. PCs meet *new* opponents and obstacles appropriate to their level.

    And remember that other numbers do change. HIt point totals go up, you get access to cool new powers, more items, can probably handle more minions, etc.


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